Grieving, funerals change in Nevada County due to COVID-19
“We couldn’t just not do anything,” Akhila Murphy said.
On April 7 Murphy’s mother-in-law died, and Grandma Joan’s large Irish-Catholic family had to face the bleak reality that it couldn’t have a traditional funeral for her because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As a certified death doula and cofounder of the Full Circle Living and Dying Collective, Murphy was well-versed in helping people cope with the death of a loved one, but this was something she had never experienced before — and it was personal.
Unable to gather together to share their grief and find closure, tech-savvy younger generation family members organized a virtual memorial service over the Zoom video-conferencing network.
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Murphy reported one grandson set up a Dropbox account to collect pictures of Grandma Jones for a slide show. Another grandson put together a playlist of Grandma Joan’s favorite songs.
Forty people attended the two-hour, virtual ceremony. Tears, laughter and memories were shared. Family members who hadn’t see each other in years were able to reunite “face to face” over their computers, tablets or cell phones, Murphy said.
One granddaughter serving in the military in Germany was able to attend. Other relatives and friends checked in from the East Coast, Las Vegas and from cities and towns all over California.
Murphy noted that many who participated in the virtual ceremony wouldn’t have been able to physically attend a traditional funeral.
“I never could have imagined a virtual service could be so moving,” she marveled. “It was incredible.”
Murphy and her husband attended the Zoom session from their home in Penn Valley. The service was so well attended that not everybody was visible on screen at the same time. Approximately 20 people were visible on the Murphys’ computer screen, she said.
“It may have been more powerful than an actual funeral,” speculated Murphy, who erected an altar to Grandma Joan in her home.
Murphy was so moved by the experience that she intends to include Zoom as an after-death consoling option after the pandemic is over.
“We’re not having any celebrations of life. That’s the biggest problem,” sighed Debbie Prisk Olsen, funeral director and general manager for Hooper and Weaver Mortuary in Nevada City.
She reported the mortuary’s chapel is closed and churches are not having services.
During this stressful time, almost all funeral arrangements are handled by phone, fax and email. Because most burial services are prohibited, more families are choosing cremation, she said.
“We’re hands-on. We want to hug them. We want to console them, but we can’t do that now,” she said. “About the only time we see them is when they come to pick up the remains and take them home.”
Waiting for permission to have formal funeral services later is hard on the mourners because it prolongs the grieving process and denies them closure, she noted.
The pandemic has forced the cancellation of most graveside services. While some burials have been performed, the current restrictions only allow 10 people at a graveside service.
Prisk Olsen and a priest must attend, which only leaves room for eight mourners at the burial, and they must keep a social distance.
Noting that virtual services over Zoom are bringing some people solace, Prisk Olsen expressed some relief: “Thank goodness for technology.”
A MOURNFUL TIME
Most members of Peace Lutheran Church of Grass Valley are over 65 or have compromised health conditions. Many don’t have computers, said Pastor Bill Wong.
“This is the least ‘techie’ congregation I’ve served,” he said.
Physical contact is “a vital part of our ministry,” he explained. “We can’t do what we want to do, what we love to do.”
Home visits are rare now, and he has to keep his social distance to protect his church members as well for his own safety.
While some churches are conducting live-stream services, his worship services are prerecorded and posted on YouTube. He said the church doesn’t have the technology or expertise to live-stream.
Recently, two elderly women in his flock died within three days of each other, the interim pastor reported. They were not victims of COVID-19.
“I don’t want to do any COVID-19 funerals, he declared, but of course, if he has to, he will.
“The whole congregation is grieving” over the loss of the two popular and active church ladies, Wong said. Funeral arrangements were proving to be “a challenge.”
“It’s a question of what the families want to do,” he said.
Looking to the future, Wong said he sees a time when the faithful can gather again, but social distance protocols may preclude singing. Like coughing and sneezing, singing projects pathogens into the air where they can linger up to 30 minutes.
When the church opens its door again, he cautioned, “It’s going to be different.”
Tom Durkin is a staff writer with The Union.
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